How to Avoid Stereotypes and Biased Language in Speech and Writing

It is difficult to silence what you know. As writers, we are cautious to write outside of our own perspectives and backgrounds, focusing instead only on the things that we have a deep understanding of. What we can do, however, is take care to avoid using derogatory terminology or making statement that reinforce specific negative stereotypes that belittle other classes of people.

In today’s diverse society, it is essential to be sensitive to differences and to write with the best interest of those in the opposite gender, minority groups, or the disabled in mind. Society, as a whole, has become more inclusive, choosing to break free of the we vs. them mentality of the past and instead finding ways to link each group or societal class in a manner that is accepting and tolerant of people from all walks of life.

Political correctness has become commonplace in communications, meaning that you should be mindful of terms that will offend. This is not to say that you need to be overly excessive when trying to word your phrases so that you will not offend those around you, but you do need to push yourself to write in a way that will not causey our readers to feel alienated.

Common Issues with Stereotypes and Biased Language

As you write, it is crucial that you use language that matches your audience and intended purpose. The use of inappropriate language will only diminish your credibility as a thought leader, damage your argument, and possibly even alienate your readers. As you continue to read, your will learn some of the main issues with the use of appropriate language, such as:

  • Levels of formality in language
  • Euphemisms and deceitful language
  • Idiomatic expressions and slang
  • The use of group-specific jargon
  • Biases and stereotypicallanguage

Explanation of the Existing Levels of Formality in Language

The level of formality you use in your writing needs to parallel the expectations of your intended readers and also the purpose of your writing. For instance, if your goal is to write a cover letter for a job opening or even a university essay, you will want to use a formal writing style. If you were writing a letter to a friend, or something of a personal nature, you would be free to use a more informal tone.

The Use of Euphemisms and Deceitful Language

You should, whenever possible, avoid using any language that is intended to be deceitful. Euphemisms are terms that try to whitewash things that are wrong, unethical, taboo or harsh.

Here are a few examples of commonly used euphemisms in the military:

Pacification: Forceful exertion of outside government rule over people that were previously autonomous
Friendly Fire: A solider who was unintentionally shot by their own troops
Collateral Damage: The killing of innocent people, or the destruction of property, during war.
Sunshine Units: A power plant that is leaking radiation or other chemicals to the town

The Use of Idiomatic Expressions and Slang

Always make a conscious effort to avoid using slang (y’all, cool, etc.) or idiomatic expressions (spill the beans, pulled the wool over their eyes, etc.) in formal writing – especially if you are writing for an academic audience. The use of these terms will be your sound less credible, and extremely informal. Additionally, if you are writing for a non-native English speaking audience, it might be difficult for them to determine the meaning or intended nature of these phrases.

That being said, there are times where it is appropriate to use slang. But first you need to consider who your audience is, what they expect to get from your writing and how the use of slang or expressions might help or hurt your writing.

The Use of Group Specific Jargon

The term jargon refers to any sort of in-group or special language used by like-minded people. This sort of terminology typically suits the functions of that group, and will most often be used by members as a sign of status or belonging.

For instance, anyone who studies linguistics might be overheard using words like voiceless labiodental fricative, quantifier, diglossia, minimal pair and intensifier. But, to anyone outside of that group, these words make little to no sense at all.

When deciding which sort of vocabulary to use, the most important thing to consider is who your audience will be and what seem logical to them.

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If you are writing for a general audience, or a broad academic audience, you will want to stay away from the use of jargon – especially if you do not intend to offer some sort of explanation or glossary. If you overload your readers with terms that they do not understand you aren’t likely to prove your argument or achieve your goal.

That being said, if you are writing a paper attempting to explain something technical to non technical readers, you might want to introduce and explain a few key terms. However you wouldn’t use those terms without first explaining them in a manner that your readers will be able to understand.

Biases and Stereotypical Language

Biased language is most often seen in reference to gender, however, it can also be applied to sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, race or even political affiliation.

Stereotypical language assumes a particular stereotype about a group or class of people. For example, the ‘blonde joke’.

Stereotype: Even though she was blonde, Sally is actually pretty smart.
Revised: Sally is smart.

Language the reinforces gender bias

Your writing needs to be free from gender bias in order to be sound and effective. It is crucial that you always consult your professional standards or attempt to determine what is (and is not) appropriate to your audience or genre. Most audiences will believe it should be necessary for your to write using only language that is without gender bias. How you choose to approach your audience, and the assumptions you make are entirely up to you as a writer, however, you should air on the side of caution and stay away from negative language.

The Chicago Manual of Style and the APA offer several recommendations when it comes to inclusivity in language. Refer to the NCTE guidelines (created in 1975 and revised in 2002) for further recommendation:

Generic Use

  • Original:mankind
  • Alternatives:humanity, people, human beings
  • Original: man’s achievements
  • Alternative: human achievements
  • Original:man-made
  • Alternatives:synthetic, manufactured, machine-made
  • Original:the common man
  • Alternatives:the average person, ordinary people
  • Original:man the stockroom
  • Alternative:staff the stockroom
  • Original:nine man-hours
  • Alternative:nine staff-hours

Professions

  • Original:chairman
  • Alternatives:coordinator (of a committee or department), moderator (of a meeting), presiding officer, head, chair
  • Original:businessman
  • Alternatives:business executive, business person
  • Original:fireman
  • Alternative:firefighter
  • Original:mailman
  • Alternative:mail carrier
  • Original:steward and stewardess
  • Alternative:flight attendant
  • Original:policeman and policewoman
  • Alternative:police officer
  • Original:congressman
  • Alternative:congressional representative
  • Original:male nurse
  • Alternative:nurse
  • Original:woman doctor
  • Alternative:doctor

Whenever you write, it is important to carefully consider who your audience will be – or might be later – and to choose verbiage that will not offend, diminish or demean your audience based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, or any other sort of classification that could be considered discriminatory or exclusive.

As a rule of thumb, if you are unsure about something. Or, if there is a chance that something you say could be interpreted to mean something else – find a different way of saying it; especially if you are writing for an academic or formal audience.